Rethinking crisis management

Rethinking crisis management

Catastrophe experts advocate for a new global framework to disaster response


Planet Earth faces a multiplicity of catastrophic events that threaten the environment, economic well-being and political stability. Climate change could force as many as 200 million people to leave their homes and become refugees by 2050, and increasing financial inequities are fomenting social unrest: The richest eight people in the world combined have more wealth than the poorest half of the world’s population in total.

If such data presented by the International Bar Association and Oxfam, respectively, do not illuminate foreseeable challenges, add to the mix the resurgence of a nuclear arms buildup, amassing of advanced weapons systems by more and more nations and unprecedented pandemics occurring with greater frequency.

These global risks continue to evolve, but crisis-management experts say many of the institutions and strategies used to address these challenges have remained stagnant. Do organizations like the United Nations and World Bank — along with governments and militaries — have updated expertise and resources to meet modern-day challenges? Are there different organizations or institutions better suited for the problem-solving skills needed today?

Members of the crisis management community say such questions deserve greater attention.

Soldiers from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the U.S. Army Pacific carry an injured person from a boat in the U.S.-China Disaster Management Exchange drill at a base in Kunming, southwestern China’s Yunnan province. [THE ASSOCIATED PRESS]

“The problem today is that the challenges we have are global … and that we’ve actually run out of systems to control them,” Mats Andersson, vice chairman of the Global Challenges Foundation, based in Sweden, said in February 2017. He was at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., where he joined a panel discussion on managing global risks. “We need to find new ways. We’re trying today to fix the problems of today with the toolbox from yesterday. We need to find a new toolbox that can actually work to mitigate the risks that we have.”

Founded in 2012, the Global Challenges Foundation aims to “incite deeper understanding of the most pressing global risks to humanity,” according to its mission. It also seeks to accelerate new ways to tackle them. To that end, the foundation launched a competition to find new models of global cooperation capable of handling global risks. The competition has generated more than 4,000 entrants from participants in 150 countries. The winner will receive U.S. $5 million in prizes for the best ideas to “re-envision” global governance for the 21st century.

“Increasingly, we can be said to be living in a global community. This means that the inhabitants of every individual country, through their behaviors and decisions, can have a major impact on the essential interests of the inhabitants of all other countries,” Laszlo Szombatfalvy, founder of the Global Challenges Foundation, wrote in a letter to competition participants. “Our current international system — including but not limited to the United Nations — was set up in another era, following the Second World War. It is no longer fit for purpose to deal with 21st century risks that can affect people anywhere in the world.”

Szombatfalvy said crisis managers urgently need fresh thinking to address the scale and gravity of today’s global challenges, “which have outgrown the present system’s ability to handle them.”

Fresh perspectives, sustained cooperation

Kemal Dervis, vice president and director of the Global Economy and Development program at Brookings, agreed with the notion that governments, legacy institutions and militaries must take a fresh look at whether their strategies to address challenges have evolved with the challenges themselves.

“The toolbox largely that we have today is largely coming from the catastrophe of World War II,” Dervis said.

He promoted the idea that governments should create decision-making authority during disaster response or crisis as close to the local level as possible. That doesn’t require a drastic shift in the multiple layers of governance, he said. Rather, create an additional level that gives citizens and locals greater oversight to deal directly, and more quickly, with a disaster affecting their neighborhood.

Dervis also favored a military and security community that operates separately from economic, social and environmental affairs for crisis management. A separate military and security community could boost the military’s autonomy to implement crisis prevention strategies.

The World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2017 outlines the key challenges that the world now faces.

Top 5 Global Risks in Terms of Likelihood
  1. Extreme weather events
  2. Large-scale involuntary migration
  3. Major natural disasters
  4. Large-scale terrorist attacks
  5. Massive incident of data fraud/theft
Top 5 Global Risks in Terms of Impact
  1. Weapons of mass destruction
  2. Extreme weather events
  3. Water crises
  4. Major natural disasters
  5. Failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation

Separation for decision-making purposes, however, does not negate integration among every disaster response component. Cooperation must always remain and has, in fact, increasingly expanded among civil-military alliances.

“Vulnerable countries have begun to integrate disaster risk management policies and practices into their overall civilian governance framework to enhance unity of effort at the local, national, and international level,” according to the 2015 “Advances in Civil Military Coordination in Catastrophes” report by the U.S. Department of Defense Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance (CFE-DM).

The center’s report drew lessons learned from Super Typhoon Haiyan, also known as Yolanda, which struck the Caroline Islands, the Philippines, South China and Vietnam in November 2013. In the Philippines the storm brought strong winds and heavy rains that resulted in flooding, landslides and widespread damage. From that disaster, the CFE-DM identified three best practices:

Create a commonly understood “end-to-end warning system” that prepares a nation for crises.

Establish a bilateral commitment that responders execute multilaterally on the ground through a multinational coordination center and promotes optimal civilian use of foreign defense assets.

Maintain close coordination with the government, military and private sector so civilian responders successfully multiply a nation’s surge capacity to meet the life-saving needs of the affected population.

The importance of human capital

Keeping the emphasis on the people involved in the process, and not the organization, represents an important piece of the paradigm shift for Maria Ivanova, associate professor of global governance at the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she co-directs the Center for Governance and Sustainability.

She views the crisis management system as “fragmented.” Governments and organizations should evaluate whether they have procedures that deploy multiple actors, or multiplicity in action, she said.

“That requires us to really look into these institutions, to look into the various levels of governance, see how they function, and remember what is the goal,” Ivanova said during the Brookings Institution panel on crisis management. “Where do we want to get? And ultimately, I think we will have functioning institutions and functioning governments when we have the right people in the right places.”

It’s not enough to simply hire an expert. That individual must have a clear directive of their role within an institution or government.

Indonesian rescuers recover the body of a woman after a wall of mud slammed into houses following heavy rainfall in Ponorogo district, East Java, in April 2017. [AFP/GETTY IMAGES]

“What does it mean to actually make that institution functional? What kind of individuals do you need there and [on] these various levels of governance? And I would say they have to be committed, they have to be able, and they have to be inspired,” Ivanova said.

She acknowledged that inspiring people to talk about global catastrophic risks can prove difficult.

“Yet, we’ve seen that happen with the climate debate, that it changed from a narrative of sacrifice to a narrative of opportunity,” Ivanova said. “And that’s when [the] Paris Agreement came about, when people could see that ‘I could be part of a different economy. I can contribute to a different outcome in the world.’ And that’s when people become engaged and when individuals become active and productive elements in institutions.”

Implementing a vision for change

“In the absence of crisis, change tends to be incremental at best,” Stewart M. Patrick, senior fellow and director of the program on International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations, said during the Brookings discussion. “Think of it as sort of natural selection as opposed to punctuated equilibrium in the evolutionary field. You know, the irony is that institutions are really bad at either predicting, anticipating and preparing themselves for catastrophic risks, but what happens, ironically, is that catastrophes are actually one of the only things that actually creates some institutions.”

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has worked hard to avoid falling into that category through the creation of the ASEAN Vision 2025 on Disaster Management. It identifies key areas for making the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER) a people-centered, people-oriented, financially sustainable and networked approach by 2025.

“While ASEAN has progressed in terms of cooperation and collaboration, it is evident that the mechanisms to respond to these new challenges need to be further developed,” according to Vision 2025.

The World Humanitarian Summit Synthesis Report has outlined five key areas of action to future humanitarian action that ASEAN has adopted as part of its Vision 2025: dignity, safety, resilience, partnership and finance.

Here’s how the report elaborated on each point:

“ASEAN will need to further develop and apply its people-centered approach as a main priority. With this approach at the center of the humanitarian initiative will ensure gender equality and empowerment for women, girls, the youth and children so that they can act as agents of their own response.”

“ASEAN and the future implementation of AADMER need to ensure that there are mechanisms to enable protection and assistance for all, especially those most vulnerable. Protection should be a priority for all ASEAN responders at all times during humanitarian events as they themselves act as advocates for international law and peace.”

“Strengthening resilience requires ASEAN to shift their focus from managing crises to managing risks so that their constituents will be better prepared for what lies ahead of them. As such, achieving resilience within ASEAN requires the building of capacities of member states and within them in communities to reduce exposures and vulnerabilities.”

“Through partnerships, the future AADMER work program should actively engage the other sectors of work such as but not limited to: the private and public sectors to leverage their capabilities. In addressing needs of the future humanitarian landscape, a collaborative effort by all parties is needed to provide for the most comprehensive and holistic response to those affected.”

“ASEAN, through AADMER, should look at alternative sourcing of funding and not rely solely on donations from member states. Tapping new sources at local, regional, national and at international levels will be key to providing adequate support for disaster-affected population as well.”

Never underestimate the risks

Szombatfalvy, creator of the Global Challenges Foundation, reminds crisis management teams that major challenges are interconnected and impact each other positively or negatively.

“They [major crisis challenges] represent the greatest threat to humanity today and should be at the top of the international political agenda,” Szombatfalvy said. “In my view, political and business leaders, influenced as they are by short-term and self-interested concerns, are gravely underestimating them. These risks demand urgent global collective actions in order to safeguard future generations.”

The greatest threats faced today transcend national boundaries, Szombatfalvy said. “They therefore need to be addressed jointly by all countries based on an increased realization of our mutual dependence.”